Beyond the Pandemic

The Impact of the Pandemic to Street Life, Urban Culture and Beyond.
Maurice Harteveld, co-host and moderator of the roundtable discussion with speakers from the Netherlands, from Greece, from France, and from the United States.

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A slightly adjusted transcription of the opening of the august series of our initiative ‘2020 a year without public space under the COVID-19 pandemic’:

I’m very happy that I could contribute to this seminar, and I would like to introduce the theme of ‘the impact of the pandemic to street life, urban culture, and beyond’ by the case of the Netherlands, my own country. We have seen and a growing number of people hospitalised per day particularly in March and April of this year. Percentage-wise we could say that this is compared to other countries in Europe, yet it’s more than in Korea or China, and much less than certain states in the U.S. and, for example, Brazil. Quite some people unfortunately have passed away. Numbers follow roughly the same curve as those of hospitalised people due to COVID-19. The particular moment in time, which was the most challenging one was the end of March. The capacity of the hospitals was stressed then, but foremost the uncertainty among the population grew. What started in a south-eastern part of the Netherlands, spread all over the country. Particularly, it spread to the urban cores of the country. Perhaps, now we have some experience, this is understandable. Here, at the time in the Netherlands, public government had to come a reaction fast. First, they came with a call for public responsibility. People were asked to work at home and stay at a distance of 1.5 meters; say two arm lengths. Crowding was advised not to happen. So, less than three people outside or inside. More was not advised. Of course, we have seen it in other countries too. Yet, it was a call. There was no formal lockdown, unlike other countries in Europe. That’s to say, subsequently, and in addition, public amenities and facilities had to close. So, theatres, cinemas, sport facilities, restaurants, and cafes: they all closed. This measurement was roughly seen elsewhere too. Public life as we remember changed drastically. Still, in contract to other countries; people were not forced to stay quarantined. To certain extent there remained life in the streets.

Moral and Social Values
For the sake of this intro, within the Netherlands, I zoom in to the city of Rotterdam; as an example of the impact of the pandemic to street life and urban culture, and to look beyond this. So, again, we didn’t have a formal lockdown, unlike many countries in Europe. You have to understand this from ancient values in our society. On the one hand, we share with the globe the moral ethics and a value of health. Health comes first. Whenever someone is in need, there is the ethical response to help. This has been nicely put forward by Desiderius Erasmus from Rotterdam, written down just before The Netherlands established, already 500 years ago. He’s an important Humanist thinker and the echo of his thoughts still are present in our society. When our prime minister called the population to stay at home, the ethical response was there, and they stayed home, …and when the Rotterdam Mayor repeated the message in the own sphere, we saw another effect of this. But, on the other hand, not having a formal lockdown makes the case different. This can be understood from our social ethics and a value of the freedom of will. Being free without too strong top-down power. This is particularly in the Netherlands an important way of thinking.
Of course, this doesn’t always go well. Occasionally, moral ethics and social values conflict. So, I want to introduce a kind of disclaimer: in the Netherlands, responses didn’t go always as desired. Crowding and resistance are seen from time to time. In the early days, we’ve seen it in parks, which became overcrowded, and places to organise parties. Modestly, in time, some resistance against closures and calls for public responsibility has emerged. As a counteraction, in the early days of stress, the health sector introduced public announcements on the socials; asking people really to stay at home. Today, we see more a kind of reluctance towards the calls and remaining closures (like party centres and discos). The desire to stay at home or keep a distance; it seems that people care less…

Immediate Responses
Back to the early period of the pandemics late march. The first immediate response was the call to ‘stay home’. The situation introduced a great level of uncertainty. People started to collect goods and hoard them inside their house. People stayed home indeed. For a while, public space was extremely abandoned throughout the city. (Although, people were allowed to go outside as an individual or a family.) The larger urban arteries in the city of Rotterdam were even empty. It was an apocalyptic image, which we were seeing also in other cities, among others presented in previous webinars. It stood for an image of cities, challenged by the pandemic, around the globe. We could support this near standstill by data for 29th of March, in the midst of the stress period, of Google Analytics. Traffic reduced. People didn’t go to workplaces. They didn’t go that much to pharmacies or groceries, retail, recreation and park. Those places were abandoned. People stayed indeed at home and near the house. From home, or from the neighbourhood, population sent support to medical aid by signage on the streets. Like motivated lines in street chalk quoting “together we are strong”, or flags with texts like “we’re there for you”.

In the mean, the local government introduced measurements for urban hygiene. Sanitation was introduced all over the inner city of Rotterdam, where most shops stayed open, and near major public anchor points. It also added to the creation of awareness. Everywhere in the city, alike other bigger cities, we saw signs and symbols introduced, reminding people to stay on distance. This was the immediate response with a strong focus on ‘social distance’. It guided daily life and people visiting public places. Yet, although graphs showed a reduction of mobility and this reduction remained over Summer, people started to travel again, but modestly. Among others, they started to go to parks again.
This re-activation of public life seems a progressive development. Personal freedom seeks a balance with public health and social measures at the present. I just got a pop-up news message that the beaches are crowded again. The freedom of will brings people back to their old habits. They just want to go to parks. They want to go to beaches, etc. So, as we speak today, the city of Rotterdam introduced new measurements for the inner city: you have to wear a face mask. Not so much for health reasons, though more for changing the social behaviour amongst the people. A reminder to stay on distance. This is not only obligated in the inner-city, but also at other major other cores of Rotterdam. People have become used to the situation and seek their way out. They may be bored from staying at home, or they search for a kind of summer break. After just, say, a week of this newborn crowding, numbers of diagnosed people in Rotterdam are increasing, but, mostly. These numbers concern young people with a huge social network, and hospitalisation amongst this group is less. Altogether, we are seeing in the Netherlands today that public spaces, especially in the urban cores, are more or less populated again.

A Reasonable Search
Now, can we look beyond the current situation? Can we look beyond the pandemics? Within the scope of street life and urban culture, I think is one of the most interesting questions, which we can ask ourselves. Do we see already impacts on street life and urban culture, which could bring us to a time after the pandemics, whenever that may be? Well, obviously, the search is this. What is our future? Shall we find ourselves in public spaces, in our own bubble? Shall we introduce furniture which keeps us some distance everywhere? Will the improvised signs symbols in the streets be formalised, and kept? To me, that’s all very questionable. What will be the effect on public space on the long term instead?

The effect on street life, which we have seen in The Netherlands during the high days of the pandemics, was clear. Crowding has been avoided and roads blocked, but above all space for people by foot has increased. – We have seen examples in New York, pushed forward by Setha Low, in one of the previous seminars. – This has been like an embryonic sign, which may stay longer, which may also be present beyond pandemics. We also see the effects of urban culture. Streets are revitalising already now. Terraces are extended. Pocket parks are discovered too, as an alternative for major city parks. Putting the eye on these shifts his might may be a way to gaze into the future. In the city of Rotterdam, the situation induced by the pandemics catalysed large-scale planned pedestrianisation and greening of the city. Large arteries were already on the list of becoming largely pedestrianised. This is the next level, beyond say old-school examples of Copenhagen. Now, the larger arteries are the focus and being greened now. More cross points are introduced, all over the city. All these plans are now becoming reality thanks to the momentum.

A Challenging Forecast
Still, this development is embedded in a situation where the economic downfall has started. Also in the Netherlands, we are seeing that the vacancy rates of retail and offices increase, and people, still modestly, are losing their jobs. These’re first signs too. So, what will their effect be, in addition? A green inner city without old school shops and office buildings? Well, I presume that these signs are part of the ongoing social-economic restructuring, or maybe destructuring, following trends which are already present in our cities for a decade. People, proactive citizens, appropriate streets. People more and more work at the home office. And, whenever we can, we shop online. It is already part of our city, and, altogether, it may support an expected increase of domestic and local life in public space. This means that we appropriate the spaces near our houses because we work at the home office. We shop online. Public spaces are already in our direct proximity, but we will use it more intensely. We seek also local leisure perhaps. We don’t travel that much. Plains are on the airfields anyhow at the current and, if you add to this the expected unemployment, people have fewer means. Economic crises, which occurs, keep people limited in their possibilities. They might seek their future nearby.

So what are the design challenges we have in the times to come? Well, generic infrastructure, which is dominated by a kind of ‘global city’ image, lacks local public spaces. People living there may need spaces, which they could call theirs: community spaces. High-rise, which is omnipresent in Rotterdam, without a kind of sufficient public space on the street level or/and in the interior, maybe challenged, because people don’t have this local public space and they might seek for it. Particularly, also, the search for local public space is present in dense urban environments: dense neighbourhoods with small dwellings and narrow, few, or little public spaces, and people with a low income. We have seen examples all over the globe. It’s not yet slumming, but it’s searching for urban spaces close by in such cases, to engage community life. That’s the challenge we have. And, then, in our attempts to provide solutions, lastly particularly in large cities on our planet, we have the newcomers: people flocking in, moving from city to city. They move from the hinterland to the city. Newcomers have been always present in Rotterdam. Are they part of these local public spaces and what is theirs? Or, in situations and areas in which people are more reactive, hence less proactive; do they also take part in this local public space, or do they need another kind of space? These are the questions which we ultimately should ask ourselves …in this seminar and particularly in the roundtable debate, and in the long term. I think particularly answers to these questions are guiding our desire to create public spaces for domestic and local life, healthy and free for all…

The webinar on ‘The Impact of the Pandemic to Street Life, Urban Culture and Beyond’ included very exciting people and projects. You can watch the webinar on video on our YouTube channel.

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